PONTIAC — A Livingston County judge said Livingston County State’s Attorney Seth Uphoff may have violated ethics rules by talking with a defendant without his lawyer’s permission, creating what the judge called “a precarious situation.”
“I don’t care if state’s attorney, attorney, it doesn’t matter who it is, that deliberately approached people in the hallway that he knew were represented by counsel, made contact with them as to whether they received offers or not,” Judge Mark Fellheimer is quoted as saying in a transcript of a hearing Thursday.
He said the issue may have to be referred to state judicial officials for disciplinary action.
Fellheimer on Thursday found Uphoff in contempt of court over orders about when witnesses have to be at the court, and then Uphoff was summoned back to the courtroom hours later. In the later appearance, the judge wanted him to answer questions about a conversation Uphoff had with a defendant who had just left court after reaching a plea agreement.
Fellheimer was following up on a comment Uphoff made Thursday morning related to an ongoing dispute between Uphoff and public defender William Bertram about how plea offers are handled. Uphoff maintains that the defense should make a written request for a plea offer in each case, a process Bertram claims has created a logjam in misdemeanor court.
The judge commented in the transcript that he expects the defense and state to work out their differences, noting that most cases are resolved short of a trial.
According to the transcript, Fellheimer asked Uphoff if his admission that he spoke with at least one defendant without the defense attorney present amounted to an ethical violation that the judge may be required to report to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.
“Ethically, do you believe this is proper?” the judge asked.
“Ethically, under these circumstances I don’t believe this was an issue,” Uphoff responded, according to the transcript.
Uphoff continued, “I was trying to determine whether or not he had been an individual who I think now has been unfairly punished under these circumstances,” adding that he felt the man may have qualified for court supervision.
Bertram is quoted as telling the judge “absolutely not” when asked if he gave Uphoff permission to talk to his client.
Uphoff said in an email Monday night to The Pantagraph he is out of the office for the week and unavailable for comment.
The judge ordered a transcript of both hearings after Uphoff’s admission that he went into the hallway and told defendants interested in a plea offers to talk to their attorney. That was in addition to his direct contact with Bertram’s client.
Uphoff’s conduct created a situation that “puts everyone in a tough spot” and “a precarious situation,” said the judge.
The state ARDC investigates complaints against attorneys and forwards its findings to the Illinois Supreme Court, which determines what sanctions may be warranted, including suspension or revocation of a law license.